Pick your pretty poison

Activists battle the cosmetics industry to keep toxic chemicals away from women's skin.

Published October 26, 2007 3:00PM (EDT)

Soap? Who needs soap?

If you haven't fed your inner paranoid recently, or you're just looking for a surefire way to cut down on your toiletry expenses, I recommend AlterNet's interview with Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" and communications director with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Her book explores the cosmetics industry -- which has been mostly unregulated since 1933 -- and the potential health risks associated with saturating our bodies with hundreds of chemical compounds.

Malkan is part of a growing chemical-watch movement seeking to limit women's exposure to chemicals brought to us by the beauty industry. Even if you discount the fear of moisturizer as much ado about lotion, the story behind the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is still pretty intriguing. Back in 2002, a coalition of nonprofits launched the group after testing 72 beauty products for the presence of phthalates, a plasticizer and hormone disruptor. Since then, the plasticizer has been banned from cosmetics in Europe and, just last week, in baby products by the California Legislature. Some 600 companies have signed the organization's Compact for Safe Cosmetics, vowing to remove toxic chemicals from their products. In 2005, one of the founding members launched Skin Deep, a searchable database of toiletries based on their ingredients, which has become a ground zero for chemically conscious consumers.

The fight against pretty poison goes on! Last week the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a report that claimed to have found lead in 11 red lipsticks. The Food and Drug Administration announced that it would conduct its own follow-up study, but added that similar claims in the past hadn't proven true. Some industry spokespeople have suggested that the cosmetics industry already follows strict safety standards and bases its decisions on peer-reviewed science, not activist claims. Which makes me wonder, as I obsessively search Skin Deep for toxic-free baby sunblock late into the night, will we look back on this moment and laugh at our naiveté that we thought we could control our environments via our toiletries?

What's now known is that there's not that much known about the long-term health effects of our constant chemical baths. But there's evidence that for most women, cosmetics contribute more than their fair share. A few months ago the Soil Association (a U.K.-based environmental organization) grabbed headlines with the claim that the average woman absorbs 5 pounds of chemicals through her skin every year. Malkan's point is that when it comes to something as optional as cosmetics, we might as well err on the side of caution. Does that mean, as one AlterNet poster claimed to have done, giving up all grooming products and bathing once a week with warm water? That's up to you and your loved ones.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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